Accessibility in E-learning Is Non-Negotiable

Sucharu Gupta November 9, 2020

No one is ignorant; we are facing a massive economic crisis. Experts are taking this as ‘depression’ rather than a recession. And who knows, what is next? However, one thing is predictable in this most unpredictable COVID-19 era; educational institutions are the first to close and last to open.

Round the globe, universities and schools have made a rapid shift to online mode. When most of the learning has to happen remotely, lack of a11y of your course content means a lack of access to education for students with disabilities. In the United States alone, nearly 6.7 million students receive special education services; hence the current situation makes it necessary to focus on web accessibility practices for all digital content.

 “A child is only as disabled as their environment and the beliefs of the people around them.” – Bala Pillai, a board-certified specialist in pediatrics.

E-learning: Intelligent Learning

Today, e-learning has revolutionized how content is accessed, consumed, discussed, and shared by online learners. Gamification, personalization, adaptive content, and analytics are unique features that transform e-learning to intelligent learning.

If there is a lack of accessibility for any module of an e-learning product, it will widen the gap between the training experiences of people with and without disabilities. Hence, giving a pdf/ word version of your content is neither equivalent nor compliant or provides an inclusive experience. It is like setting a single event right, rather than making the whole process seamless. Indeed, such a minimal solution is neither going to withstand any legal audits nor meet user expectations.

Universal Design Basics: New Accessibility Standards

A11y can be a lifesaver for educational businesses that are developing digital content and tools. Educational material needs to be non-discriminatory and cater to the needs of different audiences. Let’s check out the personas of some possible virtual learners:

  • John has cerebral palsy and uses voice-recognition technology for navigation.
  • Tessa is blind and uses a screen reading software to navigate her computer.
  • Anna has dyslexia and faces problems with blocks of text and color combinations.
  • Billy has lost his fingers and cannot use a mouse.

So, what is the solution? How do we design inclusive web content that does not discriminate between users with disabilities and provides equitable access?

Businesses need to create educational content that is inclusive and accessible. No doubts, to start with A11y may look overwhelming and cumbersome at first glance. After all, a diverse spectrum of disabilities and assistive technologies (ATs) are being used worldwide. It is essential to comply with the laws of every country to avoid litigation issues and provide an equal user experience.

There are many important pointers to keep in mind while designing digital educational content. Here is a start point for broad understanding, stating the fundamental guiding ideas of A11Y course content:

  • Text alternatives  to non-text content conveying the appropriate visual information contextually.
  • Videos should be accompanied by a caption, audio description, and transcripts.
  • Multimedia content such as visual infographics, animated pictures, and GIFs should be paired with a description.
  • Keyboard accessibility is vital to ensure access for all those using modified keyboards and other switch devices or eye-tracking technologies.
  • Sensory characteristics should be emphasized. With exception to activities with pedagogical justification, that require the use of vision (size, color, location) and sound, the activity should be flexible and broadly accessible for its completion.
  • Contrast is an important element. There should be adequate contrast between foreground and background visuals and audio.
  • Clear and concise content help cognitively challenged individuals and keep the interface user-friendly.
  • Navigation consistency in how content is organized and displayed helps decrease the learning curve for all, aiding people with special needs.
  • Resources such as HTML, Daisy, or epub3formats provide unparalleled a11y support.
  • Special contentrelated to like STEM and statistics require specific solutions to make them accessible but are a feasible option.
  • Third-party content should undergo an A11y audit before complete integration.
  • Simulations that contain flashing/ flickering content should not cross the threshold and be avoided.
  • Graded assessments should ensure enough time is provided for the completion of activities.
  • Feedback and reviews should be accessible in design.
  • Communication , whether synchronous or asynchronous, should aim to provide a seamless user experience.

The long-term global lockdowns due to the COVID-19 situation have led to a tremendous increase in e-learning solutions. Since all learning activity is restricted to the web, accessibility standards are now a must, not simply an option. It is a critical differentiator for companies selling to the public sector. In the United States, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mandates that all federal agencies and any local or state agencies receiving funding must be compliant to accessibility standards. Many other countries have passed similar laws and policies too.

The global spotlight remains firmly fixed on web accessibility. As per Barclays, focussing on creative solutions for inclusion, rather than minimum legal compliance lead to commercial opportunities, more sustainable business, and better experiences for everyone. Hence, it is time to decide whether accessibility investment is mere risk mitigation or widens business reach by opening new opportunities.

Sucharu Gupta

Sucharu Gupta is a CPACC certified Accessibility testing Consultant, with 5+ years of experience in the domain. She has lived the first 25 years as a sighted individual and then after-acquired vision-impairment. Her diverse real-life experiences coupled with her technical education help create inclusive and accessible solutions. Besides accessibility, she is curious to explore mind-body relationships